With less than a week to go before training camp opens, the Canadiens have 24 men on their NHL roster. Since the official roster maximum is 23, that means someone's got to go. The question is, who bites the bullet to whittle the number down?
The smart money says it will be either Mathieu Dandenault or Kyle Chipchura. Dandenault seems to have finished his run in Montreal. His so-called versatility should be a selling point. But considering that he didn't play a single game on defence, even when there were injuries, in favour of 37-year-old Patrice Brisebois, that "versatility" is more than a little overrated. The sixty-one games he played were on the third or fourth-line wing, from which he racked up only fourteen points and was a team-worst (by a fair margin too) minus eleven. He also let it be known he didn't appreciate being benched when he had to sit out a few games. That's not the attitude you want from a borderline veteran who's supposed to be filling holes and setting an example for the young guys.
Then, on the other hand, you have Chipchura. He was drafted for his hockey sense, nice hands and leadership, and targeted to be a third-line shut-down specialist. That job requires a degree of learning on the job at the NHL level, which is fine for a building team. But the Canadiens aren't a building team anymore. They're a "win-it-now" team. That means there's not a lot of room for trial and error with rookies, which could mean Chipchura has to ride the buses until there's an injury at forward on the big team. After all, Dandenault might be considered by some to be better insurance on a game-to-game basis than a kid who has yet to hold an NHL job for a full season. And we know Gainey tends to be extremely considerate of the veterans who've served the team well. If there's no trade possibility for Dandenault, the GM would be reluctant to waive or demote him, which would be bad news for Chipchura.
That said, Bob Gainey did specify this summer that Chipchura *would* have a spot on the team that would be his to lose. If that was true, and the acquisition of Robert Lang hasn't changed the situation, then we have to expect the four centres (written in pencil at the start of camp) will be Koivu, Plekanec, Lang and Chipchura. That means Maxim Lapierre would join the crowd fighting for fourth-line icetime on the wings, and Dandenault defaults back to odd man out.
It's an interesting dilemma. On the one hand, you have a kid who's probably ready to earn an NHL spot and learn the ropes of the job he'll hold in the future. On the other, you have a proven veteran who came to the team as a free agent when few others would, and to whom Bob Gainey feels some degree of loyalty. Gainey will now face a tough choice...to demote the promising kid or to cut loose the diminishing vet. It's the kind choice we'll see more of as the team improves and competition for spots heats up.
For Gainey it means there'll be a few more uncomfortable days in the near future. For us, it means he's doing his job right, and our team is on the upswing. I'm just glad he's the one who's making the decisions.